Ian Johnson on recent China related books

The China Challenge
Ian Johnson
MAY 8, 2014 ISSUE, New York Review of Books

The Contest of the Century: The New Era of Competition with China—and How
America Can Win
by Geoff Dyer
Knopf, 308 pp., $26.95

Unbalanced: The Codependency of America and China
by Stephen Roach
Yale University Press, 326 pp., $32.50

China Goes Global: The Partial Power
by David Shambaugh
Oxford University Press, 409 pp., $29.95

China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China
edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn
Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, 459 pp., available at

In 1890, an undistinguished US Navy captain published a book that would
influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence
of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need
potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases to project power
around the globe. His work was so influential that Kaiser Wilhelm II of
Germany pledged to learn it by heart as he sought to triumph over the
dominant power of his day, Britain and its Royal Navy. When Mahan died
nearly one hundred years ago, just after the outbreak of World War I, he
was widely blamed for being the lead theorist for an arms race that led to
the catastrophic conflict.

It may be a little too pat, but it’s probably no coincidence that Mahan is
enjoying newfound fame in another rising power: China. Mahan’s books have
been widely reprinted in China, including one that features a fold-out map
of the Pacific showing US naval facilities in the region. The lesson for
China is plain—at least in the Pacific region, it must emulate America’s
naval strength if it wants to become a great power.

The popularity of Mahan’s book is one of the fascinating threads in Geoff
Dyer’s The Contest of the Century. The title might sound a bit like a
reality show, while the subtitle (The New Era of Competition with
China—and How America Can Win) has the tone of a self-help book for a
fading superpower. But ignore these examples of editorial overreach;
Dyer’s book is stimulating, erudite, and deeply researched, perfectly
timed to explain the unfolding conflicts in East Asia. He focuses on
maritime affairs as a clue to China’s intentions, which he bluntly states
as: “Forget their bland rhetoric: China’s leaders think very much in
geopolitical terms and would like to gradually erode the bases of American

This runs counter to the two dominant ways of looking at China. One is
that China is so obsessed with domestic issues that it has little real
interest in getting involved abroad. Its corollary is that Beijing is too
insecure about its hold on power at home to think seriously about
challenging the US. But Dyer—a former Beijing bureau chief for the
Financial Times—points out that China already is involved abroad, while
“domestic insecurity is feeding, not inhibiting, the desire to stand tall

Dyer is hardly an alarmist. His main point isn’t that China and the US are
headed for a military conflict. With both sides possessing nuclear
weapons, a war isn’t likely. Instead, his broader point is that China is
shifting from a country that accepts existing rules to one that wants to
make them. Dyer points out a great irony in this: China’s rise has been
made possible because of the global trading system and alliances that
Washington created after World War II. The US hasn’t prevented China from
buying resources or exporting its goods; on the contrary, its navy has
created a calming effect that makes China’s vast seaborne trade possible,
while American consumers have bought its products.

America’s dominance is eroding primarily because China’s economic rise
enables it to assert long-standing territorial claims, and it is doing so
by changing international norms. This is clearest in how China views the
Law of the Sea. This 1982 UN treaty defines territorial waters as
extending twelve nautical miles from a country’s coast. It also gives
countries a two-hundred-mile “exclusive economic zone.” The two are not
the same: territorial waters can be entered only with a country’s
permission; the economic zone is for economic exploitation but foreign
ships, including warships, can pass through it freely.

What China is doing now is to redefine the economic zone into a kind of
territorial air and sea zone—hence the series of conflicts between US and
Chinese forces. In 2009, for example, a US surveillance ship towing a
barge full of intelligence equipment was patrolling seventy miles off the
coast of China when it was confronted by a flotilla of Chinese ships. They
deployed planks to obstruct the US ship. When the US ship turned, sailors
on the Chinese ships used poles to smash the equipment on the US barge.
After completing their mission, the crew of one Chinese boat dropped their
pants and waved their rear ends in the direction of the Americans.

Most recently, in December, China’s new aircraft carrier, the Liaoning,
got into a naval dispute in its first significant voyage. Traveling south
to the contested waters of the South China Sea, it was shadowed at a
distance by a US cruiser. When the US ship got too close—estimates are
that it was several dozen miles away—a Chinese escort ship executed a
dangerous maneuver, cutting directly in front of the US ship and forcing
it to take evasive action. The move was defended as necessary to protect
the carrier. The carrier was under no threat, but carriers are the
ultimate Mahan prestige project—capital ships meant to project power
around the globe.

This near clash came shortly after China redefined the airspace over parts
of the Pacific, creating an Air Defense Identification Zone that covered
islands controlled by Japan. This was the latest in a series of recent
moves to assert sovereignty over the islands, which in Japan are called
the Senkaku and in China the Diaoyu.

Individually, it’s easy to explain away these events, or even to see them
as laughable. (Mooning a ship? Throwing planks in the water? They hardly
constitute the Battle of the Nile.) But taken together they do show
China’s desire to expand its reach. They also become more significant when
China’s territorial claims are taken into account. China claims the entire
South China Sea—which includes almost all the waters between Vietnam to
the west, Malaysia to the south, and the Philippines to the east. These
waters contain contested islands, and if China were to obtain control over
them, as it wishes, and then redefine its economic zone around each one
into quasi-territorial waters, then its territorial waters would include
some of the most important shipping lanes in the world.

If this sounds far-fetched, consider that Chinese law already treats these
waters as domestically controlled. In January, for example, China
announced new fishing regulations that cover most of the South China Sea.
The new measures require foreign fishing ships to obtain permission from
China before operating in the waters. Tellingly, the law says the waters
should be policed by China’s coast guard, not its navy. This can be seen
as reducing tensions, but also that China considers the waters to be so
domestic that it doesn’t need to involve its navy.

Such laws beg the question of who will follow them. It’s hard to imagine
Vietnamese fishing boats faxing requests to fish in waters they have
trawled for years. But in a way, this isn’t the point. The new rules
should instead be seen as Beijing methodically laying the groundwork for
control of these waters, part of a very long-term strategy.

Dyer makes this point most effectively by comparing events today with
those in US history. In 1823, Washington announced what came to be known
as the Monroe Doctrine, stating that any further efforts by European
powers to colonize or interfere with states in North or South America
would be viewed as an act of aggression and require US intervention. At
first, this was mere bluster. The United States had no significant navy,
and Britain continued to act as it saw fit, especially in the Caribbean, a
body of water that’s as close and crucial to the United States as the
South China Sea is to China. As late as 1890, the year Mahan’s book was
published, the US Navy was still the butt of jokes.

But the 1823 declaration was a marker. By the end of that century, the
United States developed a navy that could enforce this claim. Eventually,
the Caribbean came to be dominated by the United States. Britain’s
influence there faded. So too, perhaps, with China and the United States.

I was reminded of this long-term horizon when reading a New York Times
piece from last year on the fate of Ayungin, a submerged reef that is part
of the Spratly Islands. Lying 105 nautical miles from the Philippines, the
reef is part of its economic zone and is claimed by Manila as its
territory. But over the years, Chinese ships have began to patrol the
reef, and essentially have swallowed it up, much as they did Mischief Reef
in the 1990s, eventually turning it into a military base.

Worried that this would be repeated, the Philippines sank an old ship on
top of Ayungin. It now houses eight Filipino soldiers, who hold out in
Kurtzian conditions. Meanwhile, Chinese ships surround the rocky
outcropping, interdicting supply ships. The men are supplied only
sporadically when Filipino fishing vessels slip in, but for all purposes
the territory and surrounding seas have been lost to China. The article
showed the disarray in the Philippines, and how China patiently waits for
its chances.1

China’s neighbors have begun pushing back. Most dramatically, Philippines
President Benigno S. Aquino III said in February that his country’s
situation was analogous to Czechoslovakia’s on the eve of World War II,
when it was forced to surrender parts of its territory. Military spending
is rising in several Asian countries, most notably Japan, while India has
begun testing a new ballistic missile that could hit China.

China’s methodical acquisition of overseas bases is another lesson drawn
from the Mahan playbook of great powerdom. Mahan called on the United
States to acquire bases so its fleet could refuel. It was during this
time, the late nineteenth century, that America made its big push to
incorporate Hawaii, and pushed even further into the Pacific by acquiring
the Midway archipelago—named because it lies roughly midway between North
America and Asia. Soon after, it obtained the Guantánamo Bay naval base to
protect the Panama Canal. Likewise China’s apparent moves to build ports
and deepwater facilities in countries that are somewhat friendly to
Beijing, especially Burma, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka. Some seem to be mainly
commercial projects, but Dyer argues that one day they could become bases
for the Chinese navy. At the very least, the intention appears to exist.

A subtler point is that both countries’ expansion came about as a result
of broader changes in economics, and in people’s mindsets. Mahan’s book
was so influential because it caught the spirit of the times. In another
era or country, it might not have made a splash. Instead, people like the
financier J.P. Morgan thought it so important that he donated money to
help get it published.

In China, too, one senses that the military buildup and projection are the
result of forces not always part of a government plan. The port in Burma,
for example, is being pushed by a Chinese oil company. It argues that it
would be safer to send Middle Eastern oil to Burma and then by pipeline to
China, rather than by ship through the Straits of Malacca and directly to
China. And then there is nascent public opinion in China, which is often
louder and more bellicose than official pronouncements. In other words,
things like bases don’t always come about because of grand strategy cooked
up by geniuses in Beijing or Washington but because of longer-term forces.

What I also found intriguing about Dyer’s book was his ability to humanize
the Chinese military. We meet Liu Huaqing, the former commander of the
Chinese fleet. Already in 1987, Liu said, “Without an aircraft carrier, I
will die with my eyelids open.” Days before Liu died in 2011, the Liaoning
started its sea trials. Time and again Dyer shows the depth of passion and
long memory of Chinese planners and politicians. They remind us that
China’s aspirations aren’t new; it’s the ability to realize them that is

China’s aspirations could be ignored as unrealistic in the near-to-medium
term; after all, the United States has by far the world’s biggest
military.3 Matching it would take many more decades. But even if this is
China’s long-term plan—and it’s not clear that it is—China’s geopolitical
rise matters right now. That’s because China isn’t trying to match the
United States base for base, carrier for carrier around the world.

“Instead,” Dyer writes, “its military buildup is designed to gradually
change the calculations of American commanders, to dissuade them from
considering military operations anywhere near China’s coast, and to push
them slowly farther out into the Pacific.” To change this strategic
balance, it need only engage in “access denial,” using enough hardware to
make it costly for the United States to get involved.

In some ways, it already feels that we have arrived at this tipping point.
I visisted Taiwan during its first democratic presidential election, in
1996, something China opposed because it implied that Taiwan was
independent enough from the mainland to choose its own leaders. To show
its anger, Beijing fired ballistic missiles that landed just inside
Taiwan’s territorial waters. The crisis ended only when Washington sent
two carrier battle groups to Taiwan. One wonders if the United States
would do the same today; consider that on its maiden voyage in December
and January, the Liaoningpassed through the Straits of Taiwan. Would the
US risk a possible clash such as nearly happened in December?

Expensive military equipment like carrier groups raises deeper questions
about a country’s underlying economic strengths. The United States spends
almost as much on its military as the rest of the world combined. Its
position seems unassailable. But while China is a distant second, its
military spending is growing at a double-digit rate—indeed, in early
March, the government announced that military spending would increase by
12.2 percent—and it is now firmly established as the only country capable
of rivaling the US in military expenditures. It also is unencumbered by
what Dyer sees as wounds the United States has recently inflicted on

While the US has been fighting a losing battle in Afghanistan for over
a decade and poured more than a trillion dollars into the debacle in
Iraq, China has been carefully conducting the biggest military
expansion in the world.

One wonders how much longer the United States can continue to support such
an enormous military. Dyer is a Financial Times journalist and has
something to say about each country’s economic fundamentals, but not as
much as one might like. He is mostly—and correctly, I believe—dismissive
of the argument that because China owns so much US debt it can influence
Washington’s policy. Indeed, as Dyer points out, China is trapped by all
the treasury bonds it owns—like a bank that has lent almost all its money
to one borrower, it is as tied to the debtor as the other way around.

But I would have liked to have read a bit more about how each country’s
economic prospects will influence this growing rivalry. For that, I
learned much from Stephen Roach’s book Unbalanced: The Codependency of
America and China. Roach is a senior fellow at Yale University’s school of
management and a former chief economist at Morgan Stanley, the investment
bank, where he was one of the most influential writers on the Asian
economy in the 1990s and 2000s. His book is a lucid and accessible primer
on each country’s strengths, weaknesses, and prospects, highly
recommendable to specialists and lay people alike.

Roach’s thesis is that both countries are unhealthily reliant on each
other—he uses the analogy of an overly dependent couple, locked in an
unstable condition of mutual need and hate. But he makes the case that the
United States is in a worse long-term position than China. China exports
too much, and relies too much on capital investment for growth. But its
leaders clearly know this and are embarking on structural reforms that
could slowly change its habits and allow for more domestically driven
demand and innovation. The United States, according to Roach, “doesn’t
seem to get it”; its political elite is primarily trying to resurrect the
consumer-dependent growth of past decades.

The guts of Roach’s book are profiles of two pairs of policymakers: Alan
Greenspan and Zhu Rongji, and Ben Bernanke and Wen Jiabao. In the first
matchup, Roach says Zhu clearly wins. Greenspan helped to create one
bubble after the other, while Zhu reformed China’s economy. Zhu did set
China down the road of overreliance on exports, but he also undertook
far-reaching reforms.

Of the second pairing, Roach is more ambivalent. Both men were good at
analyzing their countries’ problems but less effective in engineering
changes. Still, Roach sees Wen as setting the stage for the current round
of reforms thanks to his forthright criticisms of China’s economic system.
Bernanke, by contrast, has not effectively pushed for change, in Roach’s
view. The comparisons might not be entirely fair because Bernanke and
Greenspan were central bankers, not premiers of a one-party state, and
thus didn’t have as much power as their Chinese counterparts. But Roach
effectively uses them as symbols of their countries’ reform history.

Roach is not a defeatist. He says the United States has great strengths
and could start exporting more—for example, to China, if China really does
begin to consume more. But to do that, the United States must strengthen
its hollowed-out industrial base and improve its institutions. Yet as he
points out, the United States is losing its competitive advantage,
slipping steadily in international comparisons. Shockingly to many
Americans, the main culprits are basic requirements such as the country’s
infrastructure, political system, health care, and primary education. This
leads Roach to conclude that the historian Paul Kennedy has it right: the
United States is in decline due to “the imbalance between America’s
unparalleled projection of its vast military power and the erosion of its
domestic economic base.”

This isn’t to say that there aren’t severe dysfunctionalities in China.
The key underlying issue is of course political reform. This term is
widely used in China, but primarily means bureaucratic streamlining or
improved administrative responsiveness to citizen complaints.

One could argue that human rights don’t matter to China’s rise—that these
are domestic issues that won’t affect expansion abroad. And yet China’s
narrow political system is clearly one reason for its neighbors’
suspicions. If the government continues to lock up moderates then many
abroad will wonder if China is the sort of country that can make a
long-term stable friend.

The most recent case was the conviction of rights activist Xu Zhiyong. In
late January, he was sentenced to four years in prison on charges of
“gathering a crowd to disturb public order,” stemming from his work to
organize the New Citizens Movement. That group, entirely peaceful in its
activities, aimed for reforms to the existing system to combat corruption
and promote a fairer education system, especially for disadvantaged rural
children. The two demands are largely in line with priorities of Communist
Party leader Xi Jinping, and Xu was widely seen in dissident circles as a
moderate. Harshness like this at home won’t prevent China from cutting
resource deals—China has money, and these goods are for sale—but it will
make it hard for any developed (and, by extension, democratic) country to
treat China like a true long-term partner.

This theme is picked up with gusto in David Shambaugh’s China Goes Global:
The Partial Power. Shambaugh is one of the most influential analysts of
China–US relations. His book shows the flip side of China’s military rise:
its inability to use its new power to influence the world. It’s a
wide-ranging, impressive work, reflecting Shambaugh’s decades of research
and far-ranging contacts in Chinese policymaking circles. His book makes
use of interviews not only in China but in Europe and other countries,
affording him a 360-degree view of China’s rise.

What Shambaugh makes clear is that for all the bluster, China actually
accomplishes little diplomatically. Except for events directly affecting
its territory, it stays on the sidelines of most international conflicts,
never shaping outcomes. Instead, its main foreign policy tool seems to be
the ritualized state visit by foreign dignitaries.

In one of my favorite sections of the book, Shambaugh describes how these
visits play out. The foreigner always visits the same few places:
Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People, the Diaoyutai Guest House,
and the Zhongnanhai leadership compound. At one of the latter two
locations a bizarre meeting takes place. The Chinese leader is kept out of
sight in a room behind a door. He is always standing. The foreigner is
then let in from an antechamber. This forces the foreigner to walk up to
the Chinese leader. The foreign guest arrives on the Chinese leader’s
right side and the two stand facing the cameras. Then they shake hands,
still facing the cameras.

The foreigner’s location on the right is important because the foreigner
has to reach awkwardly across his body to shake hands with the leader,
while the Chinese leader only has to extend his right hand slightly. “As a
result, the Chinese leader always appears relaxed and confident, whereas
the foreigner often seems physically uncomfortable.” These theatrics, of
course, are for domestic consumption. But they also reflect a telling lack
of substance in Chinese diplomacy and an overreliance on showmanship. They
might also say something about the need for an aircraft carrier and to
defend it with theatrical gestures—a desire to measure up and surpass
one’s opponents. In some ways such concerns to make a visible effect
recall the great early-twentieth-century Chinese author Lu Xun and his
berating of Chinese for “spiritual victories.”

Another example is China’s love of slogans. At home, it regularly bombards
citizens with slogans like “harmonious society” or “China dream.” Abroad,
it has used equally empty slogans over the past fifteen years, throwing
out terms such as “new international order,” “new security concept,”
“China’s peaceful development road,” “China’s peaceful rise,” “strategic
partnership,” “peaceful development,” and “harmonious world.” Foreigners
are expected to acknowledge these slogans, a practice known as biaotai, or
“to declare where one stands.” But as Shambaugh points out, this is simply
parroting slogans back to China, not a meaningful discussion.

Digging deeper into these practices, Shambaugh sees a crisis of national
identity. He has a telling interview with Men Honghua of the Central Party
School. Men said China had great, universal values but they were destroyed
in the Cultural Revolution:

We have lost our values—we do not have any common values at all. There
is a vacuum of values in China. Nor do we have an ideology.

The deep structure of Chinese politics and society is also captured in
China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China, a compilation of essays
edited by the Australian Sinologist Geremie Barmé and the Beijing-based
writer Jeremy Goldkorn. This is the second year that they have published
this valuable look at the past year, which is available free as a
download. The Yearbook has a summary of recent events with short, punchy
essays by up-and-coming writers such as Leta Hong Fincher on women,
Benjamin Penny on social role models, and Sebastian Veg on nationalism.
Goldkorn also has written a valuable chapter on the government’s efforts
to “civilize” (i.e., control) the Internet.

Barmé’s chapter on the Communist Party’s values is especially noteworthy.
He points out the Party’s central contradiction. On the one hand, it
explicitly rejects what it calls “universal values,” declaring that
Chinese socialism has served China well:

Such triumphalism masks the fact that there is an abiding clash of
cultures within the Chinese Communist Party itself. Its strict materialist
worldview precludes any endorsement of abstract human worth and universal
value. But, rhetorically at least, it recognizes the potentially positive
role of values that, like Marxism itself, first evolved in the West.
After reading these books I was persuaded by Dyer that the US faces a
serious challenge. I also thought that Shambaugh’s discussion on soft
power was especially convincing. Part of being a hegemon is having an
attractive culture that others seek to emulate, and China doesn’t seem to
have this (despite a fascinating history and traditional culture).

But I kept thinking back to Roach’s book. Being clever and having soft
power are fine but they have to be underpinned by serious economic policy
and a sustainable fiscal system. More importantly, they have to be backed
by a populace and political elite that believe in its system. If the
United States continues to disregard these basics, China may not need a
Mahan-like program of building warships; its rise may simply be by

“A Game of Shark and Minnow,” The New York Times Magazine, October 27,
2013. The interactive online version is highly recommended. ↩

One criticism at this point concerns Dyer’s selective endnotes. Dyer
reports that the Pentagon estimates China will have two more carriers
operational by next year—highly implausible, but uncheckable because he
has no citations. ↩

This is a point made in a very worthwhile upcoming volume, Strategic
Reassurance and Resolve: US-China Relations in the Twenty-First Century by
James Steinberg and Michael E. O’Hanlon (Princeton University Press,
2014). This book carefully dissects the main problems discussed by Dyer.
Most striking to me was that while America’s military budget is dominant,
China could have a budget of roughly $300 billion by the end of the
decade, versus $500 billion to $600 billion for the United States. ↩


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